Hong Kong (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Hong Kong parents, students and teachers marched in the streets on Sunday in protest against a school curriculum plan they said was an attempt to brainwash students by extolling the achievements of the Chinese Communist party.
The controversy is the latest backlash against perceived political influence from Beijing in the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The furore focuses on a Hong Kong government-funded 34-page book titled "The China Model" celebrating China's single party Communist state as a unique political system under which its economy and society have flourished.
The book will form the basis of a national education curriculum for students aged six years and older in Hong Kong schools in the coming year, aimed at engendering what officials call a sense of national pride and belonging towards China.
"We don't want our child to be fed this material," said P.S. Ho, who joined the protest along with his wife and four-year-old daughter. "If the initiative continues without changes, maybe we will change schools later or immigrate to another country."
Parents with children in strollers, secondary school students and activists joined the rally on a sweltering afternoon, carrying placards with slogans such as "We don't need no thought control".
Organisers said 90,000 people took part, though police estimates put the turnout at 32,000.
It was the latest in a series of mass protests and gatherings in Hong Kong in recent months, including a July 1 demonstration that drew some 400,000 people demanding improved governance, full democracy, and less interference from Beijing.
"Parents are concerned. We don't want them to brainwash our children's minds," said Linda Wong, a member of a parent concern group and a mother of one.
While the booklet touches on some negative aspects of contemporary Chinese history including unfair land grabs by corrupt officials and a toxic milk powder scandal, it makes no mention of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
It also describes the U.S. political system as having "created social turbulence" and harmed people's livelihoods.
"This material is given to elementary school students. They don't have the independent thinking capabilities to judge for themselves," said Joseph Wong, 19, a member of a youth activist group.
Hong Kong officials rejected the suggestion they were planning to introduce Chinese-style propaganda, saying the "China Model" booklet was only a guide.
They responded to the protesters' concerns by saying a "broadly representative" committee would be formed to monitor the scheme after its implementation in the coming few years, before deciding whether it becomes a mandatory course or not.
"We definitely would not want to see any so-called brainwashing type of education from happening. If that indeed happens, which we do not believe will happen...we would be the first one to come out to condemn such a situation," said Lee Chack-fan, chairman of a group tasked with drafting the guidelines for the national education scheme.